Thursday, September 01, 2011

"Civic Oxygen" or "Poison Gas"?

This was originally written in June 2010.

Ray Pennings' recent opinion piece, "Religious faith is the civic oxygen of our social ecology," concludes that "the secularizing experiment of the past 40 years has been a failure." Many Canadians must wonder if they live in the same Canada as Mr. Pennings.

Secularization has allowed Canada to enjoy a standard of living that ranks among the highest in the world. Secularization has altered social norms so that whereas in decades past religious authorities were able to successfully cover up systematic child rape, today members of the clergy (just like any other citizen) are arrested for possessing child pornography. The secular ideals contained within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has led to greater enfranchisement for all - including, among many other examples, the right for same-sex couples to marry.

While imperfectly implemented, and acknowledging there is much progress yet to be made, secularization has been a boon to all Canadians. Secularists welcome "the social contributions of those who practice religious faith", just as we welcome the social contributions of those who are left-handed, and those who have red hair. It is the contribution to the betterment of Canadian society that matters. Secularists come from all backgrounds - religious, doubters, and non-believers.

Revenue Canada includes "the advancement of religion" in its definition of charitable endeavours, resulting in over $1 billion in tax credits in 2007 for activities that had nothing to do with housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked. Donations from the religious and non-religious are roughly the same when looking at contributions to genuinely charitable causes.

The article contains the accurate observation that there are a "growing number of Canadians who see faith not merely as a private good, but as a public bad." Canadians increasingly realize that the public sphere should be filled with myriad voices from all walks of life, and public policy should be designed for the improvement of all Canadian citizens, not just those who adhere to a particular sect.

What results when sectarian religious perspectives dominate public policy? It is true that "Christian faith and practice were essential elements in the construction of Canada." It was precisely this myopic view of who could be considered a true Canadian that led to our country's horrendous treatment of its aboriginal peoples (for which Canada's Prime Minister officially apologized only two years ago).

Mr. Pennings claims secularization "has been a failure," yet he provides no reason why anyone should consider it so. Given the numerous harms that have arisen repeatedly in Canada's history when religious figures are not accountable to secular authorities, it is reasonable to conclude that the "civic oxygen" Mr. Pennings so strenuously defends is in fact "poison gas," corroding Canada's societal and cultural well-being.

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